Technology Innovations, Workplace Culture Enable a New Level of Construction Safety
Project teams can collect and view data across project sites—in real time, from any smart device—and drill down to the worker, equipment, or incident level.
- By Pete Schermerhorn
- Jan 01, 2019
The start of a new year is a good time for organizations to take stock of their safety practices and reaffirm their commitment to improving worker health and safety. One industry where this is particularly important is construction; construction's rate of severe cases—those that lead to days away from work—is 20 percent higher1 than all other U.S. industries.
While ensuring that every worker returns home safely at the end of the day is the foremost goal of every construction firm, it is a daunting task in the physically changing work zone. Additionally, job sites can have hundreds or thousands of workers on site daily, often operating heavy equipment and machinery or working at elevated heights.
To date, safety personnel have had to rely on manual methods and spot checks to keep track of workers and identify safety incidents as they happen—an imprecise, impractical process at scale. Also, if a worker falls or is injured, he/she would have to depend on a nearby worker to leave to report the issue and return with help, increasing the risk of compounding injuries.
Fortunately, construction safety practices have begun changing with the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT)-based technologies, such as wearables and sensors. These technologies serve as extra eyes, ears, and hands at the job site, automatically capturing data from workers, equipment, and the environment in real time—more information than could be collected manually. By providing unprecedented, data-driven insights into daily operational and risk management practices, new technologies are connecting the field and corporate office in a way that was never possible before. The availability of these IoT devices and the actionable insights that they enable are impacting company culture and practices, empowering organizations to make better, more informed decisions.
In the last 12 months, more contractors have been steadily adopting technology, no longer considering it a competitive advantage, but rather an operational necessity to meet market demand and safety goals amid steady backlogs and a continued skilled labor shortage. At the same time, record outside investment in construction tech start-ups, amounting to $1.05 billion in the first six months of 2018, or a 30 percent increase from the 2017 total2, has resulted in an explosion of new solutions for builders. For the first time, project teams can collect and view data across project sites—in real time, from any smart device—and drill down to the worker, equipment, or incident level.
Expanding the Safety Toolkit
Construction companies are focusing on wearable technology to quantify worker activity and safety on site. Rugged, unobtrusive devices provide valuable data into where workers are spending time on site, as well as when and where safety incidents are occurring. By providing measurable data, firms are able to replace assumptions and anecdotes with objective data to better manage safety challenges and risks.
Now, for example, wearables can detect worker falls as they occur, triggering an immediate notification to safety or other personnel telling them where the incidents happened, so aid can be sent quickly. Real-time incident identification and notification not only enable faster response and better care for injured workers, but also help to contain exposure by preventing nearby workers from entering unsafe areas. In addition, sensors tagged on equipment can monitor real-time location and operation, alerting supervisors to unauthorized or unknown equipment operators and mitigating the risks associated with improper equipment usage.
Leveraging Data to Mitigate Risks
Forward-thinking contractors are also using technology and data to revamp their job site hazard analysis programs and communication with insurance partners. Worker-worn devices, for example, can paint a more accurate picture of unsafe conditions or near misses, helping companies and their insurance partners take an unbiased, honest look at their specific safety and loss control practices. Together, construction firms and their insurance carriers can combine new and existing data sets to determine the greatest risks—such as workers with fewer than 90 days experience on site—and refine practices to better protect workers and keep projects moving forward.
Importantly, new technology is helping to streamline incident reporting and investigation by establishing an objective digital safety log, including the time, location, and height of a fall, as well as weather conditions on site. This helps safety leaders, risk managers, and insurance professionals build context around an event and possible claim.
In addition, by reducing the lag time between when an incident occurs and when help arrives, the risk of compounded injuries can be reduced, resulting in less severe incidents and, ultimately, reduced insurance claims and costs. With new insights, both contractors and their insurance partners can make smarter decisions about their safety, risk management, and overall business strategy.
What is less obvious, but critically important, is how technology and data are redefining worker-contractor and contractor-insurer relationships. Improved visibility is resulting in improved transparency and accountability across project participants. As the landscape changes and innovative technology is embraced, construction safety and insurance coverage can move beyond impersonal, one-off "transactions," identifying bad behavior or simply reciting the latest OSHA rules, to enable a more holistic, collaborative approach to site safety.
Shifting the Workplace Culture
Along these lines, it's important to understand that these technology tools are just that—tools—and are only one part of a larger safety program that should include education/training, communication, and coaching. Using technology and data to drive down safety incidents must be coupled with a commitment to reviewing and, if necessary, changing corporate culture.
A comprehensive safety program requires management commitment, employee buy-in, and regular communication and feedback. In addition, safety technologies should enable workers to actively participate in site safety, whether it’s the ability to report a hazard or signal distress from anywhere in the field or two-way emergency communication capabilities.
Technology also can be used to help workers check into a safety mindset each time they step on site, reminding them that they have the power to add or subtract from a safe project. Rolling out new safety technology on site also provides an opportunity to kick-start other safety initiatives, such as morning stretch-and-flex sessions when project teams gather to limber up for the day or weekly toolbox talks where site-specific hazards or recent safety events are reviewed.
Perhaps most importantly, contractors need to stop pointing fingers at subcontractors or trades, shifting the narrative from "who" to "what," and technology can help with that. Wearable technology can measure safety behaviors in a way that was previously not possible, identifying, for example, a situation where workers are jumping into an excavation pit or leaping from unfinished stairs. This will not only minimize risk exposure but also give supervisors an opportunity to coach safer behaviors and reinforce best practices. By using technology to reveal the factors that contribute to an incident, construction firms can pinpoint the training or tools that are needed to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.
Looking Toward Continuous Safety Improvement
IoT-based technologies are enabling a shift in safety management and culture, enabling enhanced visibility, streamlined communication, and a proactive approach to workplace safety and operational risk management.
For the foreseeable future, the challenge—and opportunity—for the industry will not only be deciding what to measure and how best to measure it, but also what the results of this data mean for the processes, practices, and individuals who support them. Construction firms, insurance professionals, and safety leaders must be data-smart to decrease job site risk, using real-time and aggregate historical data to anticipate risk and develop plans to mitigate it, and keep projects moving forward safely and effectively.
There is a direct correlation between site safety, project quality, client satisfaction, and overall contractor profitability. As technology continues to transform the industry’s approach to construction processes and projects, it is also transforming how the industry detects, responds to, and reports safety incidents. Data-driven technology is elevating the construction industry to new levels of safety, productivity, and profitability.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.